Some Thoughts About Unsporting Conduct

Posted in NEWS on March 3, 2000

By Wizards of the Coast

Cedric Nouveau

A few months ago, while I was head judging a preview, the shop owner I was working with asked me to watch for unsportmanlike conduct. Of course, my judging team immediately asked guidelines about what they should consider to be unsportmanlike conduct, and while I was answering them I realised it was perhaps one of the most difficult area for novice judges.

So here are some thoughts about what can be considered unsportmanlike conduct and when a judge should intervene.

First of all, I would like to talk about a common form of unsportmanlike conduct, trashtalking.

Trashtalking is making your opponent lose his concentration by some kind of speech or behaviour that is not game related. But this is very player dependant: I witnessed matches were both players were enjoying being very "talkative", and others were a young player was really overwhelmed by an obnoxious opponent, and didn't dare to say anything. I think a good way to handle this kind of situation waiting until a player complain or seem annoyed. In the former case ask the other player to be quieter, and if he persist don't hesitate to issue warnings. In the latter case I would tell the player he can ask his opponent to be quieter, which give him an occasion to complain if he was too timid to do so in the first place. In case of extremely tense match you may prevent players from communicating on any non technical game related topic, but you should try to avoid this situation, (In fact, when you have to resort to this method it usually means that you failed to keep the tournament under control: I used this method only once in my whole judging career, in last year national, when two players where on the verge of fighting :-(

In the same way, lucky devices are rarely disturbing, and should be allowed unless the opponent is complaining: plants, plush pigs or hedgehog, living redfishs are usually welcomed on the play table. Should I issue a warning to the smiling guy on the left, who is doing some kind of witchcraft with his candle ? I don't think so…

Of course, this paragraph about trashtalking doesn't take into account any rude behaviour, such as this story I heard about a few years ago (I don't know if it's true or not): a player was taking his young opponents of balance by putting a pornographic gay mag on the table and touching their feet with his own during gameplay... I would clearly eject this player from the tournament !

Another form of unsportmanlike conduct is a player having emotional outburst as the result of losing a match... If this outburst is not directed to his opponent, it is usually better in my experience to tell him immediately a few words without involving warning or the words unsportmanlike conduct: His behaviour is a high profile one, and players around are expecting someone to do something about it so you have to act immediately, but threatening him at this moment is the best way to get a loud argument in front of everyone instead of defusing the situation (which is always bad Public Relation !). Just make sure you have a longer discussion with him later in the tournament, when he would be quieter, telling him that acting this way again may result in warning/ejection...

Of course, if this outburst is directed at his opponent, I would immediately ask him to follow me, go outside of the gaming area and have a more difficult discussion with him, resulting in warning/ejection

Two years ago I had this problem during nationals: In the area I was in charge of, a player had just lost a very tense match, and thrown his deck to the wall while swearing, attracting the attention of everyone around! I made a little gesture to his opponent explaining I was taking care of the situation, told the player a few words like "well, now we have to pick all those cards, do you need help ?" which defused the situation, and after a few minutes he was back, apologising to myself and his opponent :-)

It's also sometime difficult to do the difference between "Jedi Mind Trick" and unsportmanlike behaviour, so here are some examples:

-During the finals of a limited QT, late in the night, when it was clear he would lose the turn after, one of the players (A) attacked with all his creatures, the non blocked ones dealing just enough damage to bring his opponent (B) to 0. His opponent had wall of xxx, ( may prevent one damage) which could save him . In the previous turns, B used this ability to save the wall from getting lethal damages, getting into the habit of doing it. While B was thinking about how he would declare his blockers, A told him there was no way he could survive, and managed by these comments to talk B into conceding. This was definitely not unsportmanlike behaviour, as he talked B into doing a strategic mistake.

- During an extended match, after player A called a judge because his opponent B forgot to draw a card and therefore was issued a warning, the following dialogue took place (B had played necro in the meantime)

A "I'm sure you'll forgot to draw a card once more and I'll win the match by game loss"

B " Not this time, I won't be that stupid" and he drew a card.

A "Really ? may I remind you that necro is in play... Judge !"

In this case, A talked B into doing a rule mistake (drawing while necro was in play) and tried to took advantage of it, which deserve a warning for unsportmanlike conduct.

- Another case, which is a bit similar with the necro one: in the top 8 of a QT A is attacking and B declares clearly his two blockers... A thinks for a few seconds, and then says in a casual voice "so this block this and that block that", switching the blockers in the worst possible way for B.

In my opinion, as B had already declared his blockers so this does not falls in the "jedi mind trick" area (remember you are not allowed to take back a move in tournament magic) but rather into unsportmanlike conduct.

Nevertheless, things are not always that easy, here is an example which is a bit more difficult: Player A is playing an old school prison deck (icy manipulator, winter orb) and cast icy manipulator with orb in play, leaving him with an untapped land. B takes the winter orb, reads it, makes a comment about those 6th edition artefact rules, and go on playing… obviously not aware of the winter orb errata. Is A supposed to say anything ? I don't think so, as a tournament player is supposed to know the rules and erratas… Now let's suppose the winter orb is in a foreign language, that B ask A the text of the card… and that A answers that this artifact allows you to untap only one land a turn. In this situation, I think that A, intentionally or not, gets a huge advantage by not mentioning the errata, which I would equal to talking the opponent into doing a rule mistake. (by the way, A may decline to answer and tell B to ask a judge the wording of the card). So I won't hesitate to issue A a warning.

(On a side note, if you, as a judge, witnessed the first part of this scenario, where B reads the card, would you intervene, considering that he was doing a move to get the text of the card ? My actions would depend of the rule enforcement, but discussion is open…)

I will finish this article by a few words about one of the most difficult situations to evaluate: rule cheesing: some tournament level players know the penalties guidelines very well, and try to abuse it to get easy win. During 99 regional, there was a deck nicknamed turbo warning in Paris: It was based on the use of yagmoth's will and cheap cards to be reused, including urza's bauble. Some people were calling judges because their opponent didn't let them time to draw the baubles cards before their draw phase...which was bound to happen multiple time with 4 will and 4 bauble. Seems like an easy way to get double warning and match loss, so it deserves a warning for unsportmanlike conduct ?

But let's take into account a game Vs big blue: The order in which card are drawn is likely to have an effect on game play (let's imagine A should draw diabolic edict in his upkeep, B has a stalking stone and only a counterspell in hand... at that moment B has a difficult choice to do... but if he know the next card is another counter because he forget about A bauble and took it too early, that's an easier choice to do !). So a player can in good faith call for a judge because his opponent is playing sloppy.

To put it bluntly, there is no easy answer to this problem... in that case, we were extra careful about warning involving baubles (always downgrading in order not to give a match loss) , and as far as I remember didn't issue any warning for unsportmanlike conduct.

Another form of rule cheesing is asking the opponent exactly how/when he is doing something... asking your opponent how he is doing that sylvan library/abundance trick is legitimate... but how would you judge the following situations: a player claim that his opponent put the hatred in the graveyard before declaring the amount of life paid , therefore it was a X=0 hatred, or his opponent put a firestorm in the graveyard before discarding cards (which is a cost), meaning it has no target…

In those situations, I would probably explain that the purpose of the action was obvious and that I wasn't expecting a perfect timing in the declaration of the spell, so I would rule "in the flow of the game" and allow the x points hatred or x points firestorm to resolve…(perhaps giving a caution for misplaying a card). If the same player call me again on such a timing trick later in the tournament, I would likely issue him a warning for unsportmanlike conduct.

Well, to summarise this article, unsportmanlike conduct is perhaps one of the most difficult area to judge, and has many aspects. As far as trashtalking is involved, it can be considered unsportmanlike conduct only if one of the players is annoyed by his opponent. Talking his opponent into making strategic mistakes is OK, but talking him into breaking the rules is not and deserves a warning. As long as emotional outburst is involved, your main goal is to defuse the situation. And last, the problem of rule cheesing is a bit more difficult to address, the likely motivations behind the action should be taken into account when taking decision.

I hope my opinion on these subjects will help some judges, and if you would like to add something/ disagree don't hesitate to discuss these topics on the mailing list: that's what it's for :-)

Cedric Nouveau, France
Judge level 3

I would like to thanks Abde Allala, Matthieu Poujade and Cyril Grillon, level 3 and 4 judges, for their input on this topic, as well as Manuel Bevand for his comments on the article.